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Demonetisation: The Greatest Magic Act Ever Performed

Making sense of how Narendra Modi sold a disastrous economic policy to a spellbound nation.

At 8 PM on the 8th of November 2016, the curtain rose on the greatest magic act of all time.

That evening, one man stepped onstage in front of the largest captive audience ever assembled for a performance and, in a speech spanning 2423 words that took 25:04 minutes to deliver, converted most of the currency of one of the largest economies in the world into so much worthless paper. It was intended, he said, to usher in a Swachch economic Bharat. It was audacious in concept and ambitious in scale; it flew in the face of received wisdom that you cannot fool all the people all the time.

The ace mentalist Nakul Shenoy told me that a magician can, and often does, stumble during a performance. Modi’s stumble came four days into his essay in mass hypnotism when, in a November 12 speech to the NRI community in Kobe, Japan, he laughed at the hapless victims of his newest trick. “Ghar pe shaadi hai,” he smirked at one point, “lekin paisa nahin hai.” (There’s a wedding at home, but there's no money.)

By then, serpentine queues had formed outside banks back home in India, even as petty shopkeepers waited in vain for customers and perishable goods rotted for want of takers. Modi’s ill-timed mirth introduced into the pervasive atmosphere of pain a jarring note of dissonance.

Audacious in concept and ambitious in scale; demonetisation flew in the face of received wisdom that you cannot fool all the people all the time.

“That is why we have what we call an ‘out’,” Shenoy explained. The word covers the many ways in which magicians distract attention from their mistakes and rehabilitate an act when it goes off the rails. Modi’s “out” came just 24 hours later. It doesn’t figure in the Iconic Speeches category on his website but it is, to my mind, one of the most compelling examples of political theatre.

For the first 23 minutes of his November 13 speech to a full house in Goa, Modi strummed one singular note: parochial pride. He praised Goa as by far the best of the smaller states in the Union; enumerated the many schemes that had made Goa a paradise; spoke in wondrous terms of the many schemes being launched that would trigger a gold-rush resulting in tourists outnumbering locals two to one; and even congratulated Goa on gifting to the nation the strongest defence minister India ever had. If his laudatory portrait of the “visionary” Manohar Parikkar bore little resemblance to the motormouth who talked about gouging the enemy’s eyes out and who boasted that terrorists couldn’t enter the country without his permission, the crowd by then was too thoroughly marinated in a sense of its self-worth to say nay.

22 minutes into his speech, Modi signalled a change of subject, and of tone. He paused. He sipped water. He coughed. He let the silence build. Then he succumbed to another coughing fit. The suspense built. The audience held its collective breath. The dignitaries on stage whispered their concern to each other. “On the 8th,” Modi began. And he paused, with a knowing smile and nod. The audience tittered in relief – Modi was well, and he was going to talk to them of serious things.

It was magic.

Teller, the genius half of the legendary duo of Penn and Teller, in an article for Smithsonian magazine (and a lecture-demonstration for the Mind Science Foundation) revealed the seven psychological elements of a successful magic trick.

“It is hard to think critically if you are laughing”

Modi began act two of his passion play with a feather-light tickle of the audience’s funny-bone. Across the country, he said, crores of people are sleeping peacefully in their beds. But the corrupt, numbering a few thousands, cannot sleep; they try to buy sleeping pills but they can’t get any because, no money.

The illusion he conjured up had the audience in splits. And an audience that is laughing is an audience that is not thinking – thus, it never wondered for a moment why those imagined insomniacs couldn’t get their fix, given that the demonetized currency remained legal tender in pharmacies.

“It is not misdirection,” Nakul Shenoy once explained. “It is actually direction – the illusionist deliberately directs your attention to what he wants you to see, not away from what he does not want you to see.

That was the essence of Modi’s skill here: with one line, he directed the collective attention away from the frustrating hours they had spent in line and from the stories of Punjab’s Sukhdev Singh and other demonetisation-induced deaths that had begun to trickle in, and had them laughing at the illusion of corrupt plutocrats tossing and turning in a fever-fit of despair. He fooled them because they wanted to be fooled into believing that their own hardships had somehow been worth it.

“Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself”

With supreme skill, Modi then set out to make the audience complicit in demonetisation (a favourite trick, which most recently has him sharing the ‘credit’ for the disastrous GST rollout with the Congress). He planted in their minds the thought that whatever he had done was with their mandate, and at their bidding, and in defiance of the wishes of entrenched vested interests. His voice broke, his speech faltered as he spoke of his disinterest in power; his voice gained in timbre and brio as he spoke of the gigantic battle he had launched.

And through stunning sleight of mouth, he inversed the reality of November 8. Demonetisation was not a hasty, ill-considered move foisted on a country without sufficient planning and preparation but rather the realisation of the collective will of the people; he, Modi the Modest who had never aspired to high office, was merely their chosen instrument.

“Exploit pattern recognition”

Watch Teller repeatedly produce coins out of thin air. In magic, repetition creates patterns. Patterns prompt recognition, which in turn creates a knowing anticipation – you begin to see what is coming next, and this fills you with a sense of your own cleverness. Without conscious volition, you buy into the lie being sold – Teller’s coins out of thin air, Modi’s villains out of straw.

Building up a nice rhythm, Modi created repetitive patterns that played into his narrative of the virtuous poor against the evil rich. He conjured up villains: the ultra-rich with their foreign bank accounts; the rapacious real-estate agents who colluded with the corrupt in benami land deals; the jewelry establishments that aided and abetted those who sought to convert their black money into gold and diamonds...

The pattern repeated. New villains were introduced; Modi – the chosen champion – joined battle against these forces of evil and vanquished them; he spoke of even bigger battles to come, and allowed the audience to anticipate the victories that would follow.

“If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely”

Aapne mujhe kaha hai ki nahin?

(Have you not told me?)

Modi repeatedly used the evangelical call-and-response format to create the illusion that the audience, and by extension the country, had voluntarily engaged in this titanic struggle knowing full well that it was fraught with short-term pain. It was their choice, not his whim; it was their mandate, not his will; it was their fight, not his folly.

Arms flailing, palm slapping against his 56-inch chest, voice climbing effortlessly through the octaves, Modi launched into an extended fire-and-brimstone peroration.

Mujhe Goa-wasiyon ke aashirwad chahiye. Aap khade ho karke mujhe aashirwad dijiye! Desh dekhehga. Desh dekhega ki iss desh mein imandaar logon ki kami nahin hai. Aayiye, aayiye, imandaari ke iss kaam mein mera saath dijiye… sabaash, mere Goa ke pyaare bhaiyon aur behenon, main aapko sar jukhake naman karta hoon… yeh sirf Goa nahin, yeh Hindustan ke har imandaar ki awaaz hai…

("want the blessings of Goans. Stand up and bless me! The country will see. It will see that there is no dearth of honest people in this country. Come, come, join me in this act of honesty... Bravo, my dear Goan brothers and sisters, I bow before you and pray... this isn't just Goa's but every honest Indian's voice.)

Bhaiyon behenon, main jaanta hoon maine kaise kaise thakaton se ladayi mod li hain... main jaanta hoon kaise kaise log mere khilaf ho jayenge, main jaanta hoon… sattar saal ka unka main loot raha hoon, mujhe zinda nahin chodenge, mujhe barbaad karke rahenge… unko jo karna hai karein…

(“Brothers and sisters, I know what kind of forces I have taken on... I know what kind of people are against me... I know... I'm taking away 70 years of their wealth, they won't leave me alive, they will destroy me... let them do what they may...”)

What Teller demonstrated with a card trick, Modi practised with simple sleight of mouth. Oof.

The novice magician makes objects vanish – a simple feat of manual dexterity. The adept transforms the vanished object into something else altogether – the ball into an orange; the scantily clad assistant into a tiger. Modi the political prestidigitator used this speech to pull of a similar vanish-and-transform.

Demonetisation is best understood as political cups-and-balls.

Prashant Jha, the political analyst and author of the recent best-seller How The BJP Wins had, on the side-lines of the recent Bangalore Literature Festival, given a select few a masterclass in Modi’s skill at problem-solving.

Rahul Gandhi’s most effective intervention, Jha said, came in course of a speech in Parliament on April 20, 2015, where he accused the Modi government of being a “suit-boot ka sarkar”. The barb bit deep, according to Jha; it stung, and it clung to the BJP like painful burr on sensitive skin. With assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh looming, Modi had to transform. The friend of the suited and booted plutocrat had to vanish; in his place, a messiah of the poor needed to appear.

Modi’s reinvention had its genesis in this speech. “I am doing this,” he said, “for the honest among us. I am doing this for the poor of our country.” As I write this, IndiaSpend reports that the Center has not released MNREGA funds to pay those poorest of the poor – but magic is not about the reality that is; it is about the alternate reality you willingly buy into.

Eyes flashing missionary fire through the Bulgari glasses he favours, Modi in one stroke repudiated his alleged sympathies for the rich and aligned himself squarely on the side of the poor and the downtrodden. The misdirection was complete; he would build on this narrative on the stump in UP, and ride this incongruously populist image to a stunning win.

It never occurred to the adoring crowd in that auditorium to think of the last mile in that argument; it never occurred to them to wonder how demonetisation would put a roof over the poor man’s head and food in his belly, just as it hasn’t occurred to those still high on the demonetisation Kool Aid to inquire into the curious case of the corrupt jewellery merchant.

In Goa, Modi set up the gold and diamond merchant as a villain and spoke of how he had vanquished them with a law making the PAN card mandatory for the purchase of jewellery in excess of Rs 2 lakh. It was, he suggested, a masterstroke in the battle against black money – and yet, just 11 months later, the Modi government reversed its earlier notification when it decreed that no PAN or other identity proof was needed for jewellery purchases in excess of Rs 50,000. Ironically, gold imports are now surging, indicating that with the shackles removed, people are converting black money into gold.

That is by no means the only example of Modi’s bait-and-switch magic. In the immediate wake of demonetisation, Modi backed the Election Commission’s move to cap anonymous donations to political parties at Rs 2,000. This was reiterated in his government’s fourth budget, in February 2017. A month later, The Finance Bill 2017 introduced unprecedented layers of opacity when it effectively ensured that corporates can donate any amount they like, without disclosing the name of the party they were contributing to. Political black money had vanished, to be replaced by something rich and strange.

Elsewhere, even as Modi directed the popular attention to his supposedly ceaseless battle against corruption, the BJP has been swelling its ranks with every corrupt politician it can buy or subvert, including the likes of BS Yedyurappa, who back in July 2011 had by party diktat been forced to quit office because of corruption charges; Sukh Ram, a convict in the 1996 telecom corruption case; Narayan Rane of Maharashtra and, most recently, Mukul Roy of the Trinamool Congress who, as recently as September, was being summoned by the CBI in the Saradha chit fund scam. With a wave of the party’s cleansing wand, corrupt politicians were transformed into lily-white champions of democracy. “Let bygones be bygones,” the BJP spokesperson said of Sukh Ram even as Modi framed demonetisation as a fight against the endemic corruption of the last seventy years.

It is not that the premises and practicalities of demonetisation haven’t been questioned – they have. Go to any website of your choice and search within it for the term ‘demonetisation’, and you will find a year’s worth of questions and highly detailed fact-checks.

Every single time an “objective of demonetisation” is debunked by facts, the ball vanishes and mysteriously pops up in another guise, under another cup.

The problem lies not in the lack of questioning, but in the nature of Modi the political animal. In the 31 days of October, Modi has made 14 speeches; a back of the envelope calculation suggests that the tally for his prime ministership is approaching the 800-speech mark. To all outward appearances, he is the ultimate communicator – when he is not on stage, he continues to communicate through his Mann ki Baat radio addresses and his app and his Facebook page and through Twitter. He has, thus, fostered the perception that he is the antithesis of his predecessor, whom he mockingly referred to as ‘Maun Mohan Singh’.

By directing your attention to this ceaseless stream of words, he deftly deflects attention away from the fact that he has not in all this time held one single, solitary press conference. His milieu is the stage, from where he declaims with a thespian flair that camouflages a casual unconcern for facts, for truth; he glides from falsifications to fake narratives almost faster than the mind can follow; at no time does he allow himself to be trapped in a situation where questions can be asked, where disagreement can be voiced and dissonance aired. His modus operandi draws on one of the hoariest acts in the history of magic.

Seneca wrote of cups-and-balls as far back as two thousand years ago, and contemporary masters such as Tommy Wonder continue to mystify audiences with this oldest trick in the book. But Modi goes one better; his political performances are kin to the likes of Penn and Teller and Jason Latimer, who perform the trick with clear cups. You can see right through the prop and yet, as the balls pass through solid cups, jump from cup to cup, disappear from one cup and reappear in another, and even transform into other, larger objects, all at dizzying speeds that leave you thoroughly confounded.

Demonetisation is best understood as political cups-and-balls. It started out under the ‘black money’ cup, but suddenly it wasn’t there. It was supposed to be about checking counterfeits, only it didn’t. It was about checking terrorism and insurgency, but then it wasn’t. It was supposed to reduce the amount of high value currency in circulation, only it hasn’t. It was supposed to spur a digital economy, only it hasn’t. It was supposed to provide a booster shot to the economy, only it didn’t. It was supposed to widen the tax base, only, well, not so much. Modi, in Goa, took special care to praise bank employees who had laboured long hours during the early days of demonetisation – those bank employees are now threatening to strike as they have not been paid the overtime that is their due.

Every single time an “objective of demonetisation” is debunked by facts, the ball vanishes and mysteriously pops up in another guise, under another cup. Meanwhile, new narratives continue to be fashioned even as older narratives are shredded. To aid him in his smoke and mirrors act Modi has, magician-like, pressed into service a corps of assistants scantily clad in fact. The party’s IT cell has pressed into service its vast online army to propagate templated tweets lauding demonetisation’s success and shout down any and all attempts at questioning. His Cabinet colleagues have been reduced to cut-paste propagandists. His Finance Minister has, as recently as last month, continued to talk up the tired, discredited demonetisation tropes of decline in terrorist activities, of conversion to a cashless economy, boosting the economy, ending crony capitalism and tax evasion and fake currency and…

In Rajasthan, the fiasco of demonetisation is sought to be covered up in the last refuge that is patriotism – on November 8, per Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s fiat, 50,000 people are to gather in Jaipur and sing the national anthem to celebrate demonetisation. And on the same day, the ruling party and the government is poised to celebrate ‘Anti-Black Money Day’, despite there being no evidence that demonetisation has made the slightest dent in the black component of the economy.

The PM’s finely honed thespian skill, in tandem with the party’s propaganda megaphone, has been harnessed over the course of the past year into a pan India game of cups-and-balls. And yet, all the rhetoric has been unable to camouflage one central fact: the edifice of demonetisation has been constructed on dangerously unstable quicksand.

When the spell of his eloquence fades, when the curtain falls on his compelling act and our collective pulse returns to normal, we are left with the one bitter realisation: the prime minister is a magician who is all hat and no rabbit.